The Indus River which flows from the Himalayas was the birthplace of Indian civilisation more than 5 millennia ago. The British East India Company ruled in India from 1615, but after India mutinied in 1857, the British government ruled India directly. In 1929, members of the Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi raised the Indian flag declaring sovereignty and announcing:
“The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually. We believe therefore, that India must sever the British connection and obtain complete sovereignty and self-rule.”[i]
The British Empire in India ceased to be viable after WWII, and in 1947 India was partitioned, leading to India and Pakistan becoming independent states. Nehru became India’s first Prime Minister. Pakistan was split between the West of India and Bengal to the East. The aim was to have most Hindus and Sikhs in India with most of the Muslim population in Pakistan.
Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in 1948. In 1966, Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister. Her greatest achievement was the defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war after which East Pakistan would become Bangladesh. In 1984 she was assassinated by two bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv became Prime Minister, but was murdered in 1991.
Nehru promoted “non-alignment”. India preserves its strategic autonomy and seeks to be beholden to no other countries. It aspires to be part of an emerging multipolar international order, forging its own, non-aligned path. At the same time, Modi has managed to elevate India’s global stature, and each of the other major powers – the US, Russia, and China – court India, aiming to deny a strategic advantage to their adversaries. Its non-alignment policy will hasten the transition to a multipolar international system, potentially leading to India gaining a permanent seat on the United Nation’s Security Council.[ii]
India currently holds the presidency of the G-20 and has boldly stated its vision as “One Earth, One Family, One Future”. The G-20 summit will take place in September 2023 and will provide India with an opportunity to contribute to reshaping geopolitical relations and bringing about an era of pluralism and coexistence.
India will have the opportunity to collaborate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Most ASEAN citizens have a multicultural outlook and there is a close connection between India’s G-20 vision and the “ASEAN Way”, which emphasises non-interference, respect for sovereignty and the promotion of regional peace and stability. These are values which align with the Westphalian Principles developed in Europe in the 1600s, but now largely ignored by the Western powers.[iii]
By 1990 India’s world trade had declined to only 0.5%. Finance Minister Singh took drastic action with spectacular success and in five years, India’s economy grew by as much as it had during the previous 40 years. From 1991 until 2011, India’s GDP quadrupled, and after Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, India’s GDP growth rate exceeded 7%, higher than that of China. By 2030, almost 70% of Indians are expected to be of working age, giving India the world’s largest labour force.
While the world economy faces a perilous period with high inflation, bank failures and geopolitical tensions, there are a few bright spots, with China and India projected to post 5% and 6.5% growth respectively in the current year and India is projected to become the world’s third-largest economy by the end of the decade.[iv] China and India are projected to be on an equal economic footing by mid-century. For most of recorded history, they were the world’s largest economies, overtaken by the US only in the late 19th century. The re-emergence of the two Asian giants is a return to the historical norm.
India and Russia
Russia and India have a long-standing partnership going back to the Cold War. India has abstained from voting on nearly every resolution condemning Russian aggression and has chosen to pursue a “realist” policy, protecting its own interests above all else including its deep dependence on Russia for 85% of its military equipment, while India’s oil imports from Russia have risen sharply during the Ukraine war. In September 2019, India and Russia launched the Vladivostok-Chennai energy corridor to boost energy cooperation between the two countries. Although India, being non- aligned does not “side” with China’s pro-Russian position, it does participate in the BRICS Forum comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
The Global South
The long ignored “Global South” or the “Rest” is making its voice heard. While the US sees a world divided into democracies and autocracies, India champions non-alignment and promises to export its foreign policy vision to other developing countries seeing itself as the “Champion of the Global South”. For the developing world, the West has dominated the narrative for too long and there is a growing sense that the era of US dominance is ending.[v]
India is said to be the largest democracy in the world and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the largest political organisation (even larger than the Chinese CCP). Indian governance is based on the British model, with politicians focused on short-term election wins instead of long-term solutions, making the Indian government a “slow-moving beast”, at least that was the case until the arrival of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014.
The world is now witnessing the rise of authoritarian leaders in “democratic” countries, including India, Turkey, Russia, Hungary, and Brazil. Order and strong government, sanctioned by the people is what is offered by their rulers, strengthened by the belief that Western democracies are failing.[vi] The reality is that Western style democracy is not the only way and there are other legitimate forms of government which involve public participation in different ways.
While President Biden basks in his Democracy Summits (picking and choosing who to invite – he invites India), it is as well to recall that during the presidency of Donald Trump, the US was led by an autocrat (who was voted into office by half the US voting population). Trump may well return in 2024. Australia was also led by an out and out autocrat in the form of Prime Minister Morrison and, despite Morrison having been voted out of office, and largely discredited, the current Australian Labor Government is following lockstep in Morrison’s footsteps when it comes to its foreign and defence policies.
While the US targets China as a strategic rival, it speaks effusively of India’s commitment to “shared values”, ignoring the fact that India, the world’s “largest democracy” is no “liberal democracy”. B.R. Ambedkar who drafted the new Indian constitution warned that democracy in India was only “top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic” and he said that democracy would not work in India because “We have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with Parliamentary democracy”.[vii] However, none of that is relevant to the US. When it comes to the invitation list for Biden’ Democracy Summits, it is all about political expediency, and that trumps values every time.
The Cult of Modi
Since May 2014 the Indian government has been in the thrall of Narendra Modi. When Indira Gandhi won an emphatic victory over Pakistan in 1971, she was hailed as an all-conquering goddess with the party proclaiming “India is Indira, Indira is India.” Now, it is Modi who has an electrifying impact on the masses.
Modi is genuinely self-made and is extremely hard-working. He is a brilliant orator and is seen as the great redeemer of Hinduism. He has a massive propaganda machine at his command and he is exceptionally intelligent.[viii] However, with the cult of Modi, the BJP is run largely from the Prime Minister’s office and what Modi says, goes. The media is pliant and propagandist, and there is even talk of the complete capitulation of the Supreme Court to the rule of Prime Minister Modi. Freedom House and other ranking organisations refer to India as a flawed democracy, but India largely disregards such views. As India steps into a bigger role on the world stage, there is little public criticism of its so-called “democratic backsliding”. International relations are driven by interests, not morals and the West has largely avoided criticism of India, wishing to avoid upsetting such an important strategic partner.
With India’s strong leadership, its enormous youthful population, its surging economy, its policy of non-alignment and its determination to pursue its independent values, India can be expected to emerge as the indispensable nation of the 21st century and will prove to be a vital powerbroker between East and West.
“AUDI ALTERAM PARTEM” – HEAR THE OTHER SIDE!
_________________ [i] A Short History of India by Gordon Kerr 2017 [ii] Foreign Policy 6 June 2022 [iii] Chandran Nair, Pearls & Irritations March 2023 [iv] Asian Development Bank [v] Why the World Feels Different in 2023, Ravi Agrawal, Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy 12 January 2023 [vi] The Shortest History of Democracy by John Keane 2022 [vii] To Kill a Democracy by J Keane & R Chowdhury 2021 [viii] The Cult of Modi by Ramachandra Guha Nov 2022